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An Elusive Balance: WFH during pandemic upends harmony between personal and professional life

Whether people work in the office or from home, the pandemic has upended the harmony between their personal and professional life, giving rise to a public health issue that cannot be ignored
 

Published: 05th September 2021 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 04th September 2021 11:07 AM   |  A+A-

WFH, work from home

For representational purpose (Express Illustrations)

In early March of last year, when Covid-19 was a new word in our collective dictionary, and the pandemic was yet to lock us indoors, Param Singh was five months into his swanky job in a firm in Hong Kong. Riding high on the successful completion of his foreign MBA degree and the resultant rise in pay scale, this unattached 28-year-old had everything going for him. However, as things continually worsened in China, and then Italy, international borders began closing up. Singh’s family coerced him to return home to Delhi, afraid of him being alone on foreign shores if something were to happen. After much resistance, he caved in to family pressure, quit his job—no work from home (WFH) option had yet been offered—and moved back to India.

For the next eight months, he sat at home battling feelings of anxiety, while searching for a job worthy of his qualifications. In late 2020, he found one in a multinational corporation based in Gurugram, and happily reported to office on the first day, despite the two-hour commute from his residence and the flexible WFH option given to employees. 

For Singh, a millennial who had witnessed both demanding work hours and the malaise of sitting at home, this elusive work-life balance could only be achieved through strictly demarcated office timings. “Honestly, except during the second wave, I have gone into the office every single day, even though it was optional. I was so ready to go back to work! At home, work hours became a grey area. There is no black and white—it is a constant overlap between work and private life. I believe I’m also much more productive when working in the office,” he explains.

A recent report titled ‘The New Sense of Place’ released by Script, a Godrej & Boyce venture, states that 67 percent of Indians respond to work messages while at home under normal circumstances, on a daily basis. Mumbai tops the list with 85 percent respondents admitting this, followed by Kolkata (65 percent), Delhi (60 percent), and Bengaluru (59 percent). The report further highlights that when working from home, personal and professional activities are often undertaken simultaneously due to sheer lack of time. Forty-seven percent of respondents plan their menu, 48 percent help their kids with homework, and 54 percent research their next career move, while attending work meetings virtually. Is it any wonder that personal and professional lives no longer have distinctive boundaries?
 
What is Work-Life Balance?
 
Dictionary.com defines work-life balance as ‘a situation in which one divides or balances one’s time between work and activities outside of work.’ Though there is no ideal definition or standard means to describe the concept, simply put, it is the encroachment of job-related activities on an individual’s personal hours. Before the advent of technology, this balance was somewhat easier to achieve, as one could leave most of their work in the office.

Unfortunately, when people began working from home, it blurred these lines indelibly. An excessive reliance on digital mediums of communication made employers and clients expect workers to be ever-present to answer a query or carry out a task. Microsoft’s Work Trend Index Report, released last year, shows that post-pandemic, India had the longest workday span of all surveyed markets. The report recorded one-third Indian workers citing an increased rate of burnout in the past six months, where 34 percent of people surveyed complained about the lack of separation between work and life, and 28 percent about the unmanageable workload and unreasonable working hours. 

Disgruntled employees are not the only ones attempting to find work-life balance. Aggrieved employers lamenting the loss of efficiency and productivity at work are as invested in creating a work environment—remotely or in the office—that is most conducive to achieving this balance. “An overt sense of competitiveness, time urgency, and tendency toward workaholism lead to imbalance in the spheres of work and personal life. They feel these traits are beneficial for career success and in the process they generally expose themselves to the risk of being unhappy and eventually burning out. A habit of reflecting on one’s expectations from life would help in constant resetting of one’s need,” says Dr Shailaja Shastri, mental health counsellor and Dean of Faculty of Liberal Arts and Humanities at Jagran Lakecity University, Bhopal. 

The WHO estimates that poor mental health costs the global economy $1 trillion annually in lost productivity. “Managing an isolated workforce is a real challenge for human resource leaders. The surge in mental health issues, employee burnout, and over-the-top disengagement are some of the major issues that the new normal has brought in,” explains Ajay Kadyan, Co-founder of Zimyo, an HR tech startup that offers robust solutions for organisations to drive engagement and productivity in their employees.
 
Free to Work, Free to Live
 
Freelancers, presumably used to working from home, have also witnessed changes in their job profiles and work hours since the pandemic struck. Data published on Startup Talky, a media platform dedicated to sharing information on startups, point to 15 million individuals forming the Indian freelance workforce across sectors such as IT and programming, finance, sales and marketing, designing, animation, videography, content and academic writing, among others. 

Mumbai-based book blogger and digital marketer Vidhya Thakkar says the change to her routine has been minimal. Having worked from home since 2017, the only real switch she made was to a virtual medium for her part-time digital marketing lectures. Reduced travel time and the ability to work in her pyjamas proved a ‘boon’ for her. On the flip side, sharing space with multiple people at home makes it difficult to locate quiet spots for client conversations. The extra time spent at home also has her lending a hand with house-work. When asked about the demarcation between work and free time, Thakkar candidly shares that she works as much as she possibly can, and uses her free time to search for more work. 

Her thoughts are echoed by Kimmy Sahni (name changed), a writer who believes that as a freelancer, one does not have the liberty of taking time off. Appreciative clients may return frequently, but there is no guaranteed fixed monthly income. This creates an unfortunate work environment where, despite ostensibly being one’s own boss, the freelancer is forced to take on extra work they do not like, just to keep the client happy. “I find myself working all the time. Don’t get me wrong—I love what I do, especially the writing and research, but I often end up wasting time on secretarial and pen-pusher kind of work, which is so frustrating,” she says. Dr Shastri asks her clients to introspect if they have been placing all eggs in their ‘professional basket’. “It is important that we look at the personal component of our life. Paying attention to life beyond professional work would lead to better accomplishments,” she advises.

The State of Work Report, released by Adobe’s Workfront in 2020, highlights that people spend only 43 percent of their day on their primary job duties, with the rest of the time being taken up by wasteful meetings and other communication distractions. Even more surprisingly, a Rescue Time Survey showed that while 62 percent of people work more than eight hours a day, it is only 5 percent of these that are able to finish their daily tasks every day. Some of the surveyed employees blame this lack of productivity on ‘too much work’, and others pin it on a ‘lack of clear priorities’. 
 
Who’s the Boss?
 
The greatest irony is that even though people feel they are working all the time, their productivity levels have plummeted significantly. In light of this, many companies are choosing to call their employees into the office, or adopting surveillance software and other techniques to watch over those working from home. Fabiola Rodrigues, Director, Bennet & Bernard Group, Goa, shares that their employees were happy to return to the workplace after a long hiatus. “Employee experience is as critical as customer experience for us and we believe that employee satisfaction is directly related to business productivity. Only when their role is fulfilling, aligned with organisational goals, and contributions recognised at regular intervals, will employees feel engaged and happy,” she says. 

Following the lead of hospitality brand OYO Rooms and several others, Bennet & Bernard is also considering a four-day work week for their employees with two days designated WFH. Zobox, a renewed electronics startup, encourages its employees to continue WFH to stay productive. They use software to track the performance of each employee, along with organising weekly online meets to keep the lines of communication open. Founder Neeraj Chopra believes the software acts as a multifunctional tool that improves every aspect of the business, and increases the efficiency of the team. 

Surveillance software, or ‘bossware’ as it is called, being used to track the work of employees is not a new practice. However, post-pandemic, it has taken on a much more significant role. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a leading non-profit organisation defending civil liberties in the digital world, first warned people at large to beware of being tracked at work, as certain software companies had no qualms about sharing personal data and information with employers. However, with sensitive business data and information being available to multiple employees online, there are certain exigencies that prompt employers to adopt this tracking software. Zimyo’s Kadyan explains there is nothing wrong with monitoring, if done within a limit. “Employees should not feel that they are being spied on,” he explains. Indian laws do not specifically deal with employee surveillance software, but the Information Technology (IT) Act 2000 and Sensitive Personal Data or Information (SPDI) offer limited protection to employees, by outlining what is permitted in terms of data collection, storage, access and protection. 
 
What tomorrow Holds

Rodrigues of the Bennet & Bernard Group believes that the future workplace is likely to be based on a flexible model. She advocates thinking out-of-the box by adopting progressive human resource practices that foster greater adaptability and efficiency, and also promote employee wellbeing. Clearly, WFH is here to stay. Numerous organisations have announced permanent home-based work to ensure employee safety, making it a major challenge to keep the workforce engaged. Kadyan outlines the problems of remote working as limited communication, non-uniform working hours, technical limitations, and a lack of company culture. To address these issues, his startup has launched an AI-enabled employee engagement module for organisations to facilitate conversations, manage projects, share informative and valuable content, and make important announcements. Called ‘Engage’, this tool is aimed at increasing employee wellness and in turn, their productivity. It organises virtual team-building and networking activities, employee rewards and recognition programmes, has a mood- analysis dashboard which is activated when the employee clocks in for the day, and open feedback forums through polls and surveys. 

A report on the Future of Work after Covid-19, published by financial giant McKinsey, shares that around 20-25 percent of the workforce in advanced economies are willing to work from home three to five times a week. Another survey, conducted by the same firm last August, noted that 278 executives planned to reduce their office spaces by 30 percent, having been satisfied with the experience of working remotely. 

The Accenture Future of Work Report 2021 consolidated these findings. Eighty-three percent of workers prefer a hybrid work model, but their productivity in such an environment depends on a variety of factors. Employers too have awakened to these needs, as evident from the fact that 63 percent of high-growth companies surveyed have adopted a ‘productivity anywhere’ workforce model, allowing people to work where they choose.

Manas Mehrotra, Founder of 315Work Avenue, a co-working firm based in Bengaluru, shares, “Now, more than ever, flexibility is crucial and hence coworking spaces, with their easy work culture and inherent readiness to add value, are best positioned to adapt and redefine the future of the workspace. Every business is currently hoping for the safe return of their employees to the workplace and are deploying space management technologies and adopting tech and data-driven solutions, so 
that people feel safe in office spaces.”
 
Sliding into the Future
 
As the workforce—freelance and employed, onsite and off—navigates this change, it can adopt certain measures to ease the transition process. These include insisting on the autonomy of choosing their place of work, participating in meaningful conversations around mental health, improving their digital skills, and demanding access to sound health policies along with the support of leadership in handling expectations in a digital world. 

Jaipur-based Motivational Speaker and Technologist Vimal Daga highlights the importance of prioritising one’s work as per relevance and importance, and setting boundaries to manage time effectively. A study conducted in 2015 for the International Archives of Occupational and Environmental Health found that setting a work purpose before beginning is the best way to stay energised and focussed on one’s goals throughout the day.

Apart from changing oneself, it is also important to adapt to one’s surroundings to achieve optimal work-life balance. Kshitij Mirania, Partner, Mirania Luxury Living, a luxury interiors and furniture brand catering exclusively to the East Indian market, has noticed that people who were earlier reluctant to spend large amounts of money on decorating their homes, do so now without hesitation. He believes they think of it as an investment since they are more willing to entertain their friends and family at home rather than stepping out. The New Sense of Place report, published by Script of Godrej & Boyce, notes a 35 percent growth in sale of accessories and 2X growth in sale of WFH furniture, dittoing Mirania’s refrain.

Priyanka Singh, Director at VO Furniture, agrees with them when she says, “In a post-pandemic world, we are living, working, entertaining and praying at home. Buyers look for furniture and products that will enhance their experience of activities and functions at home. The trend includes custom-made furniture pieces for each space. From living rooms to WFH stations, recliners to comfortable seating, the focus is now on comfort more than style.”

Several people have turned to traditional Indian wisdom in search of this elusive balance. Chhavi Sharma, a Vastu Shastra expert based in Toronto, has been helping people by advising them on simple changes in their home set-ups. She asks her clients to declutter their homes to make room for energy rotation, keeping the northeast zone well-lit and open, and the southwest heavy and closed. Additionally, she points out optimal locations for people to work in, as well as display pictures and other knick-knacks. She recommends keeping plants in every room of the house to increase positive energy. Numerologist and Founder of NumroVani, Sidhharrth S Kumaar, advocates regular exercise and meditation as well as listening to healing music at 528 Hz every day as sound therapy. He also advises adding crystals to the home for their positive energies.

“Ask for support from your loved ones. Talk to your office supervisors about your condition and chart a work plan that suits you and the team as well. It is okay to say no. In fact, you should say no often and firmly! Understand that there is more to life than work,” counsels Dr Malini Saba, Founder and Chairman, Saba Group and Anannke Foundation.The world, as we knew it, has changed, but the future need not be bleak. Suman Sharma, Principal and Head of Business of the Mangrove Collective, a bespoke furniture brand, sums it up best, “Even though people are returning to offices, the pandemic has caused a shift in the way society views happiness, comfort, and entertainment. People have started looking inwards and valuing themselves and their environment more. I believe that irrespective of where people choose to work from, creating a haven which resonates with their inner self, has now become of utmost importance to them.”

NEED TO KNOW

Work-Life Balance
A situation in which one divides or balances one’s time between work and activities outside of work

Bossware
A software for tracking workers on their productivity, as well as to deal with concerns about data breaches or intellectual property theft

A Rescue Time Survey reveals that while 62% of people work more than eight hours a day, only 5% finish their daily tasks every day. In the study, 25% of the employees say it is because of “too much work” but more people place the blame on “lack of clear priorities”.

According to the State of Work Report done by Workfront in 2020, employees spent only 43% of their day on their primary job duties due to wasteful meetings

Microsoft’s Work Trend Index Report 2020 shows that India has the longest workday span of the surveyed markets. It also states that close to one-third of workers in the country cited an increased rate of burnout in the past six months.

The State of Remote Work 2020 by Angelist and Buffer interviewed 3,521 remote workers worldwide and found that 98% of the people would like to work at least some of the time remotely for the rest of their careers. 

‘The New Sense of Place’ report by Script highlights that 67% of Indians respond to work messages while at home under normal circumstances, on a daily basis. Mumbai tops the list with 85% respondents admitting this, followed by Kolkata (65%), Delhi (60%), and Bengaluru (59%). It states that when working from home, personal and professional activities are often undertaken simultaneously. 

VIMAL DAGA TECHNOLOGIST AND MOTIVATIONAL SPEAKER

• Plan your day to enhance productivity and improve time management skills. This helps you calibrate your daily life while keeping stress at bay. 
• Prioritise your work, according to relevance and importance. Delegate responsibilities as far as possible. 
• Set your own working hours so you can avoid working in your private time 
• Exercise daily to feel more energised and happier
• Do not confuse having a career with having a life 

Vidhya Thakkar Book Blogger and Digital Marketer

• Set a schedule for yourself. I wake up early to get a large chunk of work done.
• Identify simple activities that you can do that are completely separate from work activities. For example, I journal, play UNO with my family and take frequent walks. 

Chhavi Sharma 
Founder, VastuChhavi
• Declutter your home to provide room for energy rotation
• Northeast zone should be light and open
• Southwest zone of the house should be heavy and closed
• Face North or East while working from home
• Hang mirrors on the Eastern or Northern walls only
• Family pictures should be displayed on the Eastern or Western walls
• Pictures of ancestors should be displayed on the southern walls of Southwest zone
• Always put wall clocks on the walls of East or North
• Keep plants in every room of the house for better live energy

Siddhaarth S Kumaar Founder, NumroVani and Astro Numerologist

• Practice affirmations telling yourself that there is no stress, and everything can be managed
• Perform cross-legged Sukhasana for 10 minutes, along with 528 Hz Sound Therapy for 10 minutes, and Seven Chakra Healing Meditation for 21 minutes
• Other yogic asanas can be practiced after this 41-minute journey to enhance benefits further
• Maintain proper cleanliness at home and use rock salt to wipe the home at least once a week 
• Crystals like Amethyst and Turquoise can be kept at home to channelise their energy 
•Water and table salt can be placed in a disposable cup in the bathroom and changed every week  
• Give a break to your eyes every couple of hours to keep from straining
• Maintain communication with team members
• Companies should proactively think about the holistic wellness of employees

Suman Sharma Principal and Head of Business, Mangrove Collective 

• Embrace a mindful and sustainable lifestyle
• Create a workspace that resonates with your inner self, as a canvas of self-expression



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